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Reform Commission Issues Report Reimagining District Policing

April 02, 2021

By Jeremy Conrad

On April 1, the DC Police Reform Commission released a report outlining its proposals to reimagine policing in the District to enhance public safety and end “harms associated with over-reliance on law enforcement.”

Established by the D.C. Council in July 2020 in the wake of the George Floyd protests, the commission is comprised of 20 leading experts and advocates representing various stakeholder groups in the District. The 259-page final report, “Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety,” has been delivered to the council for consideration.

If adopted, the changes could result in the decriminalization of many acts and a shift in response from arrest to intervention, treatment, and rehabilitation. The report asserts that allocating responsibility to relevant health and social services providers instead of to the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) will result in improved health, safety, and security for District residents.

“Effective public safety requires community-building solutions. It is time to reassess our reliance on policing and invest in community resources and social support systems that build safer and stronger neighborhoods,” said commission co-chair Christy Lopez, a professor at Georgetown Law and co-founder and director of its Program on Innovative Policing. “It is the right time for the District’s leaders to dedicate the necessary resources and personnel to act on the strategies and tools outlined in this report.”

It is not the goal of the commission to “defund” the police, said Commissioner Robert S. Bennett, senior Counsel at Bennett Doyle LLP. Rather, the commission seeks to “direct funding in strategic ways that will strengthen MPD and the services it provides.”

Alternatives to Police Intervention
The commission is proposing sweeping changes, including “de-centering” police as primary responders to community health issues, replacing them with bona fide 24/7 crisis response teams composed of community behavioral health care providers with meaningful ties to the communities they are deployed to serve.

Reforms should include expanding pre-arrest diversion for individuals with behavioral health problems, the commission said, and eventually replacing the District’s domestic violence mandatory arrest law with clear guidance that officers follow in consultation with advocates on the scene and with survivors themselves.

The commission also recommends the elimination of police presence in schools, replacing them with community-competent, trauma-informed, and school-based mental health professionals. “The daily presence of police officers in schools is antithetical to environments meant to foster learning and positive development,” the commission said.

The commission is urging the District to minimize arrests of children in school, prohibit service of warrants on campus except for violent incidents occurring in school that involve the use of a dangerous weapon, declare schools as weapon-free zones where even police officers must disarm before entry unless responding to a violent incident, decriminalize status offenses and some other offenses when committed by youth, and establish age 12 as the minimum age of liability for juvenile delinquency proceedings, consistent with international laws and recent state reforms.

Limitations on Arrest, Search and Seizure
To adopt a harm-reduction approach to policing, the commission is calling on the District to suspend MPD’s use of aggressive stop-and-search tactics, prohibit consent searches, and transfer  to the Department of Transportation enforcement authority for traffic violations that do not imminently threaten public safety.

The commission recommends that the council modify search warrant execution practices by banning no-knock warrants and strictly limiting quick-knock raids. These would require increased diligence verifying addresses and complying with constitutional requirements for patting down and searching occupants. Further, the commission said gun-pointing and handcuffing during the execution of search warrants should be prohibited unless there is an articulable immediate threat to the safety of officers or others.

Another recommendation would be to amend MPD General Order 304.10 to prohibit justifications such as presence in a “high crime area,” nervousness in the presence of police, “furtive” gestures or movements that lack specific detail, generic “bulges in clothing,” and other boilerplate pretexts for a police stop.

Proposed reforms would discourage criminalizing survivors of sex trafficking, expand crisis intervention and services for survivors, and ensure that the police are “a gateway to help rather than a pathway to jail.” Officers would be strongly discouraged from arresting or citing potentially trafficked youth without conferring with specialized advocates, as well as from arresting or citing adults for the sale of sex.

The commission also recommended that the council decriminalize low-level offenses that result in the criminalization of poverty, including but not limited to illegal vending and panhandling.

Transparency and Accountability
Many recommendations would increase transparency and accountability of MPD activities. The proposals would require MPD to collect and make public data on stops, protective pat-downs, searches, search warrants, arrests, uses of force, and canine use. The commission recommended the creation of a deputy auditor for public safety within the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor to strengthen public oversight of MPD.

The commission is recommending that the council and the mayor revise the D.C. Freedom of Information Act and explicitly make police officers’ disciplinary records public. “Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant. Secretive internal investigations and disciplinary processes leave the public in the dark — skeptical, doubting, and unable to hold the department or individual officers to account,” the commission said.

Under the proposed reforms, MPD would no longer automatically purge “adverse actions,” the most serious level of discipline, from officers’ personnel records after three years. Even lesser “corrective actions” would not be purged, and their consideration when disciplining an officer would be permitted.

Additionally, the commission called for an end to qualified immunity in the District. The doctrine, criticism of which was covered in the November/December 2020 issue of Washington Lawyer, shields government employees from liability for actions taken in the course of duty that, even if wrongful, were not clearly unconstitutional at the time. New York recently became the first U.S. city to ban the application of the qualified immunity doctrine, and Colorado has led a growing number of states to do so in order to greater protect the civil rights of their citizens.

Ongoing Debate
The commission’s proposals include many significant, sometimes radical, changes in how policing would be conducted in the District. At various junctures the vigorousness of debate exposes itself even within the report. Bennett, in his comments, listed his disagreements on a number of recommendations advanced by the commission.

He said that reductions in MPD headcount and budget would endanger the city, and increasing the age limit for juvenile defendants from 18 to 21 would be dangerous given the violent crime committed by those within that age group. He also disagreed on the elimination of qualified immunity and consent searches, and expressed concerns about the cost of implementation for many of the proposals.

How the council will receive the commission’s recommendations remains to be seen, but the report itself stands as a remarkable contemplation of the complex issues relating to policing as the city seeks to explore how it can fundamentally change the way it approaches health, safety, and security within the community.

The full text of the DC Police Reform Commission’s report can be found here.

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